The following story explores some recent developments in the central tragedy of modern Guatemalan history – the genocide which took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Maya during this country’s long civil war. In an email conversation with La Cuadra Dr. Barbara Rose Johnston shared additional information about the international financing of the Chixoy Dam which, we feel, provides an even wider financial and legal context for the story.
That story centers around an act of genocide in which several hundred Mayan men, women, and children were murdered, the proximate causes for their murder, and recent legal steps taken to exact some small measure of justice in their name. But the story also touches on the economics of their ultimate victimization.
In short, this is the story: those who were murdered lived in a valley by a river. The government decided to build a dam on their river. The lake resulting from the building of a dam on their river would have flooded their pueblo. They protested. They were targeted for their protest. They were murdered in cold blood. The dam was built. Their bodies were tossed into a mass grave.
Dr. Johnston was the principal researcher of this story during a three year long project that produced, in 2005, a truth commission style report on the consequential damages of building the Chixoy Dam. This report was delivered to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, The World Bank and the International Development Bank.
This research demonstrated that the Maya A’chi of Rio Negro held a 100+ year title to their land and that the sanctity of that title was guaranteed by the 1952 Guatemalan Constitution. The pubic utility that built the Chixoy Dam never acquired legal title to the land, the hydroelectric works or the area for the reservoir. Building the dam was clearly illegal under Guatemalan law and the international lending institutions who provided financing for the project knew this.
Conscious of their culpability in the violation of law, those international lenders continued to fund the project, though roughly three fourths of the funding simply disappeared. In 1996, when the World Bank recommended privatization of the electrical transmission grid, it was, in part, an effort to finally receive payment for these original loans.
During The World Bank’s discussions on privatization and financial loss, we strongly suspect little mention was made of those whose losses were both human and eternal.
“Dams, Reparations and Genocide” first appeared in print in CounterPunch, November 16-30, 2008, Volume 15, number 20 (1-4), and is here republished with the kind permission of the author.
As I turn on my computer, each day I am greeted by my desktop photo – a singular image of a skull, other bones blurred in a background of dirt, a tattered shirt and a bit of boot in the margins. The jaw and teeth are grinning into the dirt, and the back of head is clearly in view. A bullet hole is prominently figured. Number 15, reads the marker, planted adjacent to the skull. For years now, this desktop image has haunted me.
The photo was taken by the Belgian ethnologist Bert Janssens in the fall of 2001, as he documented the exhumation of a mass grave in the hills above Río Negro, a village now drowned beneath the reservoir created by the Chixoy Dam. He sent it to me as part of a massive collection of images that I used to illustrate a five-volume study written to clarify – for the government of Guatemala, the World Bank and other international financiers, and the Guatemalan people – the many varied legacies of this internationally financed dam (The Chixoy Dam Legacy Issues Study, www.centerforpoliticalecology.org/chixoy.html).
Built in a time of civil war, the Chixoy Dam forced residents of Rio Negro and nearby villages to leave their homes and ancestral lands at gunpoint, and their protests were met with violence and massacre. Residents of other villages, coerced into civilian militia duties, wielded those guns and machetes. Guatemalan soldiers, serving as security on the dam site, directed their actions. The public utility, INDE, paid the salary of those soldiers with money loaned by the World Bank.
This particular image was part of Bert Janssens’ “Xococ” series, a poignant set of photographs documenting the exhumation process: relatives watching, working, digging, and forensic archeologists carefully recording the sad findings: a trench littered with shoes, clothing, the tattered remains of life and the grizzly evidence of the death of 107 children and 70 women. I keep it on my desktop as a way of insuring that this life and the questions behind this death do not get pushed aside. Who was this person? What were the events that led to this death and those of the many others whose remains lie in the same mass murder grave? What sort of life has resulted for those who survived?
Over a million Guatemalans were displaced during the nation’s internal conflict and, according to 2006 estimates, somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 people were killed in a campaign of state-sponsored violence against a largely Mayan population. In 1999, the United Nations-sponsored Commission on Historical Clarification (CEH) reported the findings from exhumations, forensic analysis, and witness testimony: some 83 per cent of the 42,275 named victims were Mayan civilians, 93 per cent of the atrocities committed during the conflict had been the work of the armed forces, and, as evidenced by a number of exemplary cases, massacres were the result of a policy of state-sponsored violence on a Mayan civilian population. The government of Guatemala and its military dictators were responsible for acts of genocide and other crimes against humanity.
One of the Mayan massacres investigated by the CEH is the case of Río Negro, a village that now lies under the reservoir created by the Chixoy Dam. Built in the late 1970s and early 1980s with Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank financing, designs were approved, the project financed, and construction begun in 1975, without notifying the local population. Construction began without legal acquisition of the land supporting the construction works, a portion of the dam and hydroelectric generation facility, the reservoir, nor the farms needed to support evicted communities. Construction proceeded without a comprehensive census of affected people or a plan to address compensation, resettlement and alternative livelihoods for some 3,445 – mostly Mayan – residents, displaced by the dam and its reservoir or the additional 6,000 – mostly Mayan – households in surrounding communities. Civilian protest occurred when negotiations with authorities failed and petitions were submitted to the Guatemalan government and the Spanish Embassy. These complaints were interpreted by the military government as evidence of insurgent influence, and the army declared these “resistant communities” subversive. When construction was complete and the reservoir waters rose in January 1983, ten communities in the Chixoy River Basin had been destroyed by massacre. In Río Negro alone, some 444 of the 791 original inhabitants had been killed.
Earlier this year this nameless, numbered skull regained a sense of humanity: it is someone whose life, loves, and death has been described by surviving relatives in a Guatemalan courtroom. Some 26 years after death, the occupants of this mass grave were finally the subject of a court proceeding. On trial were six men from the Mayan village of Xococ, former members of the Xococ Civil Defense Patrol.
The facts of the case, as confirmed by witness testimony and exhumed remains, are as follows: On March 13, 1982, army officers and six members of the Xococ civilian patrol traveled to Río Negro, assembled the residents and took them to the “Portezuelo,” a place called K’oxom in the hills above Río Negro, where they massacred 107 children and 70 women. Eighty-four survivors fled, some taking refuge in the community of Los Encuentros near Pueblo Viejo. Others took refuge in the community of Agua Fría. Eighteen children were kept as slaves for the civil patrollers.